Man amasses collection of 6,000 Barbie dolls

Barbie collector Jian Yang poses with part of his collection at his home in Singapore September 2, 2013. REUTERS/Edgar Su
Barbie collector Jian Yang poses with part of his collection at his home in Singapore. Credit: Reuters

The white exterior and spartan gray staircase of Jian Yang’s tidy rowhouse give no hint of the colorful sanctuary that lies within — a pink living room floor and his collection of more than 6,000 Barbie dolls.

The 33-year-old Singaporean favors minimalist decor but the Barbies and 3,000 dolls of other kinds dominate three sides of the main room and spill over to fill nine mirrored cabinets in his dressing room and the shelves of his study.

“Incongruous is kind of me,” Yang told Reuters. “When you meet me outside of this, I’m not that kind of guy. I’m not what you expect from a guy that collects dolls.”

Yang has a professional interest in toys and consumer trends as director of strategy at Omicom Media Group. But his Barbie collection began at age 13 when he bought the “Great Shape” model in a turquoise Spandex gym outfit and striped leg warmers.

“Before I knew anything about social norms, I was a boy that watched this on TV, liked it and wasn’t allowed to have one,” he said. “As I grew older, got my own allowance, that’s where I started getting the freedom to buy whatever I wanted.”

His boyhood interest turned into a “crazy obsession” that his friends support and his family has come to accept.

“I’m very into collections, I’m very into amassing,” Yang said. “I’ve also got the ex-girlfriends who get insecure about this kind of stuff. … They look at dolls and go, ‘OK, that’s the competition’, which is quite troubling but it’s a reality.”

The self-described “toy nerd” reckons he has spent at least $392,000 over the last 20 years on his collection, which also features hundreds and hundreds of dolls from the Bratz Girls, Monster High and Jem and the Holograms lines.

‘Ugly is hot’

Barbie, launched in 1959 wearing a zebra-pattern swimsuit, has sold more than 1 billion dolls. But for Mattel Inc., the toy giant that makes her, sales of the dolls and related products fell 12 percent in the April to June period of this year — the fourth straight quarter of decline — as tastes shift.

Yang said Barbie was an icon that still had a future but “the relevance is waning” as princesses and ballerinas give way to the ghoulish imagery and stories popularized by vampire movies such as “Twilight.”

“That’s where Mattel has taken it,” he said. “They have taken the craze of ugly is hot and made Monster High because they know Barbie will never be the monster.”

Hasbro Inc., Mattel’s main competitor and a client of Yang’s in his work, has made similar changes to its dolls.

Yang’s oldest Barbies date from the early 1960s, including one in a nurse’s outfit with cat’s eye glasses. But his passion runs the gamut of eras and styles, including Barbies in dozens of national costumes and editions with the likenesses of Grace Kelly, Barbra Streisand, Carol Burnett and Elizabeth Taylor.

The rarest Barbie he owns is a model sold only in boutiques of the Comme des Garcons fashion label. “My friend found her in Hong Kong and made an emergency phone call to me,” he said.

In a floor-to-ceiling glass case in the living room, Osama bin Laden shares a drink with Saddam Hussein as Maleficent, the evil sorceress from “Sleeping Beauty,” Jackie Onassis and Lady Diana look on. Elsewhere are Elvis Presley, Sean Connery as James Bond and characters from “Harry Potter” and “Star Trek.”

To top it off, the hue of the floor is not just any pink. It is Barbie’s signature color: Pantone 219 C.

“I travel for work, I travel for myself, so I find dolls everywhere,” Yang said.

On his last trip to New York, he bought 65 dolls. He is going there again this month and is sure to hit the shops. Yang also get dolls as gifts and buys them at auction and online.

He has no plans to slow down – so what will he do when he runs out of space?

“I’ll buy the other house,” he laughed, pointing next door. “I still have an empty wall over there.”


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